Friday, October 27, 2017

What's in a Name?

From church records to birth, marriage and death registrations, census records to electoral rolls and passenger lists to immigration and naturalization records, many of our favourite sources for family information have captured a variety of spellings, handwritings, and abbreviations.  As those historical collections have been digitized and transcribed, modern day technicians have struggled to correctly interpret and preserve an entry from long ago, and subsequently we as researchers have struggled to find them.

If there is one thing I have learnt in my years of researching my family, it is that NO surname, however simple, will EVER be recorded with the same spelling all the time.  When researching, always consider how a name may have been misspelled or incorrectly recorded.  Remember that the clerk creating the record spelled the name the way he felt like spelling it - how it sounded to him at the time.  And frequently he got it wrong.  Sometimes he got it spectacularly wrong!

Abbreviations can also complicate research - William was often abbreviated as Wm, Thomas as Thos or Tom, Patrick as Pat or Patk or Patr, Daniel as Dan or Danl or Danny, Margaret as Maggie, Elizabeth as Beth or Eliza.  When searching for an ancestor, be mindful that an exact search for a given name may unintentionally hide an ancestor from view if the original record or transcription used an abbreviation.

In addition to alternate spellings and abbreviations, another source of name variations comes from errors made during the transcription process.  As people transcribe family history records, they seek to preserve content exactly as it appears in the historical original.  Despite best efforts, errors do occur and names can be unintentionally altered.  Consider how old handwriting may be misinterpreted - both by you and by earlier transcribers or indexers. 

Some databases are quite flexible in regards to spelling variations when searching, but they will never cover every possible error and sometimes several searches are necessary to locate an elusive record.  Remember to be creative and keep digging - you never know what you might find - or how it may be spelled!

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